Archive for the 'films' Category

More recent films

March 22, 2008

One in a very occasional series, in which I share some thoughts about films I have watched in the not-too-distant past. This time, 2 highly acclaimed films, each with their own very distinctive aesthetic and visual style.

First up is No Country For Old Men. I’m going to nail my colours to the mast, and say that I thought this was the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, combining all the tension and suspense of their thrillers such as Fargo, with cinematic flair comparable to someone like Terrence Malick, as well as enough jet-black humour to leaven what is a pretty uncompromising plot.

I won’t go into the plot here, which is actually a fairly standard story of a drug bust gone wrong, followed by a pursuit, albeit told in a pretty oblique fashion. What really make it stand out are some astonishing performances from the lead actors. Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are suitably wry and laconic as (respectively) the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, basically a decent, resourceful guy in way over his head, and the old-time but astute Sheriff Bell, whose reflections on events provide a suitably terse voice-over narrative.

The real stand-out (and worthy Oscar winner) is Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurrh. Chigurrh is the assassin put on Moss’s tail after the aforementioned drug deal gone bad. To call Chigurrh simply an assassin doesn’t really do him justice, though- he’s more akin to a force of nature or perhaps a personification of evil, being as he is implacable, remorseless and inhuman. Inhuman is perhaps not exactly the right word- he does turn out to have a warped code of honour, although this doesn’t really go any way towards lessening the bloodshed of what is a pretty violent film. There’s a particularly uncomfortable scene during which he torments a gas station attendee for an innocent remark, and all the while you can tell that while Chigurrh might kill the man, doing so would mean as little to him as not bothering.

While the film has a definite ending, it doesn’t really tie up a lot of the loose ends, which I appreciated- so many American films seem to be scared of ambiguity. Also ambiguous was the moral of the story, if any. Sheriff Bell seemingly retires because of the terrible things he has witnessed, although [SPOILER ALERT] I thought it might have been suggested that he had in fact been killed by Chigurrh, and that Bell’s last few scenes were in some kind of afterlife. Chigurrh manages to stagger off at the end, unbowed and no doubt ready to commit more acts of violence, should more contracts come his way. He seemed in some way symbolic of the forces unleashed in the early eighties (the film is set in 1981) by the likes of the proliferating drug trade, the trauma of America’s disastrous war in Vietnam, and the brutalising effects of the move away from the New Deal consensus towards Reaganomics.

Anyway, ill-formed politico-cultural musings aside, the movie is brilliant- it works as a super-tense thriller, a meditation on the old West and the nature of the frontier in the American psyche (oops, there I go again) and as an exemplary exercise in acting from its excellent cast, and film-making from the back on form Coen Brothers.

The other film I’m going to write about is Anton Corbijn’s Control. This is a biopic of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who committed suicide at the age of 23. I’m a big fan of Joy Division, and indeed of all things relating to Factory Records, and Manchester music generally, so I was looking forward to seeing this.

The good stuff first: the cinematography and period detail were both excellent, evoking the grimness of the 70s in Macclesfield and Manchester. The cast’s performances were very good, managing to equal those in the great 24 Hour Party People.  In particular, Sam Riley is uncannily similar to Ian Curtis, and even manages to pull off his slightly upsetting semi-epileptic onstage performances.

What I found lacking, however, was any kind of narrative tension. I guess this is partly because I’m familiar with Curtis’ sad life story, but I don’t think that was entirely it. Anyone watching the film is likely to know that Curtis ends up taking his own life, so the film then has to hold your interest when you already know its ending. Unfortunately, mine waned, and I ended up wanting him to put on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and then do the grim deed just so I could finish watching. Probably worth watching for the cinematography or if you’re interested in post punk, though.

I was also going to blog about There Will Be Blood, but I’ve repeatedly failed to go and see it in the cinema, but hopefully I’ll manage that soon.

Recent films

November 9, 2007

This is one in a very occasional series in which I blog about my thoughts on films I’ve watched recently, not least so that I can remember what I’ve seen. I haven’t been to the cinema very much recently, and missed the big late summer blockbusters (apart from the just-about-okay Die Hard 4.0). I really wanted to see the Simpsons Movie and Knocked Up, but those are two films that can safely be seen on DVD, I think. Anyway, as follows.

Death Proof: I saw this in the very appropriate setting of the Rio Cinema in glamorous Dalston. It has the usual Tarantino tropes of great music, self-consciously snappy dialogue (more on this later) and violence. Very bloody violence. It is filmed as a homage to the 70s and 80s grind-house movies Tarantino loved as a budding film geek, and as such is filmed on grainy film stock with some dodgy editing. This feature is rather undermined by the use of tracking shots and some admittedly spectacular stunt-work that looked far too professional to pass muster as realistic b-movie fodder.

Another flaw is the dialogue. It seems to me that, when writing the screenplay for this movie, Tarantino had somehow got it into his head something along the lines of “hey guys, here’s where I prove I can write for chicks as well as dudes!” The results are some of the most bafflingly turgid film dialogue I’ve ever seen, which seemed to go on for an interminable amount of time. Quentin, admit it, you just can’t write for women.

All this silliness (admittedly partly caused by the chopped then extended nature of this version of the film) is somewhat redeemed by the presence of the great Kurt Russell as the main bad guy, who does his Kurt Russell thing to great effect, and has some great lines (in particular, when getting his comeuppance after terrorising various innocent young women, his cries of “Oh God! Why me???” are pretty funny). The chase scenes are also undeniably exhilirating, and just about make things worthwhile. Overall, a bit of a misfire, though.

Zodiac: Based on the book of the same name, written by one of the protagonists in the film, this is about the notorious Bay Area series of murders, the perpetrator of which was nicknamed the “Zodiac killer”. It’s filmed in David Fincher’s trademark style, with lots of browns and greys, and has interesting sound design, with muffled dialogue.

The film is a police procedural, of sorts, except without any of the resolution that you might expect from films of that genre. Instead, you see the investigation getting hopelessly entangled, thanks to jurisdictional politics, police incompetence, and the intrusion of mass media. It is the latter that is the thematic key to the film, I think: Fincher seems to be saying that as soon as the media gets hold of a series of crimes like the Zodiac murders, the idea of a neat resolution goes out the window, as crackpots come out the woodwork, conspiracy theories abound, and the acts perpetrated by the murderer become eclipsed by the media entity that is “the Zodiac killer”.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Mark Ruffalo particularly good as the Columbo-like detective left to solve the case. Jake Gylenhall is also pretty effective as a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case, eventually going on to write the book on which the film is based (self referential or what?) One thing that really, jarred, though, was the horribly blatant product placement for Coke, to the extent of having a scene set in a police station begin with the lines “the Coke machine is bust”. For such a well put together, meticulously scripted film, this just seemed bizarre.

The Science of Sleep: A funny one, this. I really enjoyed (despite low expectations, thanks to the presence of arch-gurner Jim Carrey) Michel Gondry’s last film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and was hoping for something similar here.

While it has something of the emotional punch and visual and conceptual richness of Eternal Sunshine…, it is also decidedly less satisfying. This is mainly because Gael Garcia Bernal’s lead character, Stephane, is basically a creep. To be more specific, a needy, stalking, emotionally dependant creep with mother issues and a very tenuous hold on reality. His dream sequences are supposed to be whimsical and charming, but in fact they come across as a bit, well, creepy.

Despite this rather large flaw, the film is touching, and certainly has the courage of Gondry’s convictions in terms of its visual brio. He seems to have a knack for taking the mundane, then going off at what almost seems like a 4th dimensional tangent. In this, I think he’s comparable to Terry Gilliam, and may perhaps suffer the same fate as Gilliam: eternally doomed to making films that never live up to those that he sees in his head. In fact, kind of comparable to the character of Stephane in this film.